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The jockey had murder in his eye, the chef cooked up a winner, and pari-mutuel integrity was fully compromised. And that was just on the first day.
The 2010 Breeders' Cup World Championships provided all manner of triumph and heartache. Blame, Zenyatta, Goldikova, Life At Ten, Uncle Mo, Bo-Rail, Pletcher, Johnny V, and Edgar. All had a hand in it.
* * *
After a tolerable level of hype all day, with ABC/ESPN keeping tabs on Zenyatta's race-day regimen, it was finally time for the Classic in Churchill's autumn gloaming.
After a lackluster start and a seeming inability to gain full traction, it didn't take long until jockey Mike Smith had to urge Zenyatta to move up and get closer to the action. It was apparent the Churchill Downs dirt had to feel at least a little different to her. I said out loud, she's not going to win this race.
"I couldn't get her going the first part; the dirt was hitting her (in the face) and she was a bit overwhelmed by it in the beginning," Smith later said, while placing full blame for the loss on his own shoulders.
Meanwhile, Garrett Gomez and Blame were quite content to lead the second tier of horses; Gomez able to fashion a perfect trip for the four-year-old son of Arch. Quality Road, Espoir City and Etched battled up front.
On the backstretch, Smith decided to go low toward the rail in an effort to save the big mare some ground. He knew he had used some fuel to keep Zenyatta from being hopelessly behind. "I had to cut a corner," he said.
Zenyatta did gain ground on the turn, but now she needed to find a seam, a hole, to be able to get out into the stretch and turn on her famous closing kick. Smith had to check as a tiring Quality Road backed up to her. Up front, Blame had to muscle his way through a hard pinch by Etched on his inside and Lookin At Lucky to his outside.
Zenyatta found her opening, but had to go hard right to get it, stutter stepped and then zigged and zagged for three strides. Blame shook his pursuers and emerged with the lead. And, on the outside, Zenyatta roared, Smith unfortunately whipping the hell out of her. Now I'm thinking, she's going to win!
But not on this day. Blame put everything he had into a strong, consistent, focused drive to the wire, never twitching as Zenyatta threatened him, never backing down even well through the wire. Blame punched out a longish nose win.
With such a flat start, Zenyatta had too much to do. This wasn't a questionable Grade I with a short field back on a California synthetic. She was facing some of the finest horses she'd ever seen. A couple of bad breaks here and it's over.
But oh how she ran! Enduring a very tough trip, there she was in the stretch, showing the world just what she's made of. Her streak of 19 victories seemed so trivial, so foolish as she ran the greatest race of her life in her first loss ever.
And those of us who follow this game were left to wonder what would have been if she had gotten more experience on different dirt tracks, damn the streak! Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer John Shirreffs had had their quixotic fling with perfection, an idea unthinkable, really, in the hard-knocks of horse racing.
Zenyatta will always remain an enigma to me, great in a handful of races, but tough to rank in the pantheon of the all-time greats. But she sure gave us a great one Saturday.
The truly greatest mare in the world had actually made her history three races earlier.
Goldikova became the first horse in history to win the same Breeders' Cup race three consecutive years - the Breeders' Cup Mile - or three Breeders' Cup races of any kind, for that matter.
In her patented push-button style, Goldikova bided her time until the turn, went four wide, and downshifted into her legendary closing gear, winning going away in what looked like a ridiculously easy effort. It was as thrilling as I thought it would be.
Goldikova is the best in the world because, unlike Zenyatta, she has taken on the best in Europe, male or female, on several different tracks. The Mile was one of those races where I watched only one horse, Goldikova. America's Gio Ponti finished a gallant second.
How cool is this shot of Goldikova's groom rooting his girl on and "running with" her as she overpowered the Turf field?
It gives you some idea of how fast and powerfully these horses are as they thunder past him at a level higher than the surface he's standing on. I thought to myself, I don't think he's supposed to be out there, and a later showing of the video confirmed it as a huge security guy calmly came out to get the groom after they had crossed the finish line.
* * *
Goldikova's trainer, Freddie Head, the only man to both ride and train Breeders' Cup winners, left no doubt when he said simply, "She's the best mare in the world."
Head rode Miesque as she won this same race back-to-back in 1987 and 1988.
The 2010 Breeders' Cup festival got off to a pugilistic start as the rage of Cajun jockey Calvin Borel made all the papers in the usually forgettable Breeders' Cup Marathon, the first race on Friday.
Javier Castellano on Prince Will I Am cut off Martin Garcia on Romp as they came out of the turn in the 1 3/4-mile race. Romp went to his knees and Garcia literally pulled him back up, by his own description.
As Garcia was dealing with his disaster, Borel, on A. U. Miner, came up to Garcia's right and had to check up himself. In recovering, Garcia was completely out of the saddle, hanging on for dear life with just the reins to hold. He plopped back down on his seat and I believe Borel was so close to him, horses touching, that he may have helped Garcia get back in the saddle.
Prince Will I Am went on to contend, finishing second. As Castellano and Borel entered the scales area near the winner's circle, Borel went zombie, warning Castellano of his impending death at Calvin's own hands. Eyes as big and bulging as Moon hubcaps, face crimson, Borel was so angry he couldn't speak and almost hyperventilated. That worked up, he could have strangled, skinned and eaten a gator back in his native Louisiana but, ironically, Castellano threw the only punch that landed.
Are these jockeys strong? It took four people, including his bigger big brother, to restrain Borel. The jockeys' room was locked down and, allowed to ride their Breeders' Cup mounts, Castellano and Borel could be seen escorted by burly security guys the rest of the weekend. Castellano and his mount were disqualified to last in the Marathon.
Since then, Castellano has been suspended for six days and fined $2,500, although he was granted an injunction allowing him to ride in Japan this weekend. Borel was fined $5,000.
The integrity of the wagering was severely compromised as the horses paraded before the Ladies Classic Friday, the big race for females.
In a stunning and bizarre combination of reporting and disclosure, ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame former jockey Jerry Bailey queried Life At Ten jockey John Velazquez about the horse's seeming lack of energy.
"I don't know Jerry," Velazquez said as he passed the perch ESPN had constructed for the anchor team on the first turn. "She just didn't seem to have the same energy in the paddock she usually does."
Unbelievably, moments later, horse and rider passed by again and Bailey shouted "How's she doing now?" "Not so good, Jerry."
It was one thing for Bailey to comment on how lethargic the horse looked, but for her jockey to admit as much minutes before the race was truly earth-shaking. I snapped out of my shock and with just four minutes left before the race, I was able to cancel my online bets and reconstruct them. Life At Ten went off the second favorite!
Velazquez' fears were confirmed when the gates opened and he immediately took Life At Ten back and embarked upon a mere gallop around the track.
Thankfully the horse didn't get hurt and is alright.
But this is a pari-mutuel snafu rivaling that of the Pick Six scandal of the 2002 Breeders' Cup at Arlington. Whereas 2002 was skulduggery, this year's was a blatant lack of integrity and complete disregard for the betting public.
The only people who knew anything about the problem, besides, I'm convinced, trainer Todd Pletcher and Velazquez, were those of us watching on ESPN. If you were anywhere except in front of a TV with the sound on and you were betting online or via mobile, your bet was made for good. Or bad.
Think of the betting consequences: single race either win or exotics, Daily Double, Picks 3, 4 or 6, Ladies Classic/Classic double, jockey bet. Despicable.
Pletcher blamed the problem on "tying up" due to a possibly bad injection of the anti-bleeding medication Lasix. Kentucky racing officials are huffing and puffing about an investigation and deflecting responsibility.
If it's me, I suspend Pletcher minimum three months, and that means not come within 100 yards of any horse of any kind at any track or any stable and fine him a minimum $100,000, no trainer earnings, nothing. Velazquez, minimum one month suspended and $50,000 fine. I can dream, can't I?
The Next Big Thing
Kentucky Derby conversation usually starts as soon as they cross the wire in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. This year's "It" horse is Uncle Mo, who dazzled with a powerful 41/4 length win.
A lock for Two-Year-Old Eclipse Award honors, Mo handled any questions anybody might have had about his first try at two turns. He's now got three wins by a combined 23 1/4 lengths, including the Grade I Champagne last month.
However, being an Indian Charlie colt out of the Arch mare Playa Maya, whispers about his ability to get the classic 1 1/4-mile distance of the Derby are already being heard.
For the record, Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners do not usually win the Derby. The only horse to pull off the Juvey/Derby double was Street Sense in 2006-07.
I'm no expert, but I really thought I saw a huge divot of turf go flying when (poorly named) Rough Sailing had his feet go out from under him as he made the first turn in the Juvenile Turf.
We were getting diametrically opposed opinions on the turf all week and on the two race days. The gifted three-year-old British colt Workforce, coming in off winning the iconic Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, was scratched out of the Turf after his connections complained all week about the hardness of the course. Yet, a few jockeys called the course soft. It was rated firm for the Breeders' Cup.
Churchill officials said they had been watering the turf intensely because of drought conditions throughout the summer. I can only wonder if the pan underneath was hard and the top layers of grass and dirt were soft. Sounds dangerous to me.
Jockey Rosie Napravnik was lucky she wasn't stepped on by a trailing horse as Rough Sailing went down. He got back up and it did not appear he had any leg injuries. Sadly, we were informed later that the two-year-old had severely broken a shoulder and had to be euthanized.
Celebrity chef Bobby Flay had a good line after his More than Real won the Juvenile Fillies Turf on Friday:
"I don't know what to say, and I'm never at a loss for words," Flay said, flanked by statuesque actress wife Stephanie March, jockey Garrett Gomez and Pletcher.
If you've ever watched a minute of him on television, you know that's true.
Retire That Bird
Mine That Bird, who joined with Calvin Borel for a crazy ride down the rail to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby, was retired after finishing 10th in the Dirt Mile. It was his ninth loss with no wins since the Derby, although he did finish a close second in the Preakness.
Props To Prado
Edgar Prado, Red Bradley's favorite jockey, was grateful as his Shared Account won the Filly and Mare Turf on Friday, paying a very nifty $94 to win.
It was Prado, 43, who was credited with saving Barbaro's life after the colt injured an ankle in the 2006 Preakness, two weeks after they had won the Kentucky Derby together. The Peruvian native also rode Birdstone in 2004 when he denied Smarty Jones the Triple Crown.
As Hall of Famer Prado and Shared Account approached the ESPN platform, Bailey congratulated him and Prado just said, "Everybody forget about me."
Well, I never forgot about him. He's one of those jockeys who always enters into the handicapping, as far as I'm concerned.
ESPN/ABC's coverage of Breeders' Cup weekend was generally good, but not perfect.
They started out strong by staying with Borel going ballistic, and in its followup coverage Jeanine Edwards reported that Tell a Kelly trainer John Sadler was not at all happy with Borel, who was scheduled to ride his charge three races later. "He couldn't change jocks now if he wanted to," Edwards said, strongly implying that that's exactly what Sadler wanted to do.
As he entered the paddock for that race, Borel appeared to have two or three game faces on. Nice shot. On Saturday, Borel and Castellano were loaded into the gate right next to each other. Castellano locked, looking straight ahead, while Borel was looking all around.
* * *
Once again, puritanical avoidance of showing the odds and in-race fractions was quite aggravating. Thankfully, I had the computer going.
And the quick-cut, goofy camera angles for the attention-deficit crowd and the useless overhead shots were very annoying. You could never get a sense of the races or which horses were gaining or losing.
Saddle-bound analyst Caton Bredar did her usual good work, but was dodging the turf-condition question to a degree.
Kenny Mayne and Hank Goldberg were given such short shrift in outlining their wagers to viewers, that ESPN/ABC almost shouldn't have bothered. Goldberg was in a rare winning mode, but we didn't get to hear much of his analysis. And next year let's trade Mayne and anchor Joe Tessitore. When it comes to the horses, Mayne's really got it goin' on.
* * *
There was an extra special bonus as ABC made the switch over to ESPN at 2:30 on Saturday as Illinois and Michigan were going at it in the Self-Esteem Bowl.
In college overtime, boys and girls, one team gets the ball and if they score, the other team gets the ball. And on it went as both teams kept scoring in what looked like a flag football game. The overlords of college sports are not doing the campus muscleheads any favors by shielding them from the agony of sudden death overtime losses. The Big Can't-Count-Past-Ten Conference must have better lawyers, armed with no-interruption clauses.
* * *
Just as football interrupted coverage Saturday, the move of Friday's late races to prime time, under the lights, is nothing more than another revolting example of television controlling all aspects of our lives. But with the state of horse racing today, it's inevitable.
* * *
I won't use the word (or his name), promise. But the Churchill Downs bugler really . . . has a hard time with the call to the post. But think of it this way, Ralph Kramden couldn't hit the high note either. Where's Bonny Brown when you need her?
* * *
That hulking football stadium in the background that we saw every time there was a shot up the stretch is really ugly. Ruins the pastoral ambience of Churchill Downs.
A bit of research reveals that it's called Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Um, okay, but how are these college kids gonna learn anything eating inferior pizza?
* * *
Illinois-bred Giant Oak, one of the favorites in the Marathon, was adversely affected by the Castellano-Garcia-Borel mess and had to go wide to avoid them. He finished fifth, 5 1/2 lengths back. Hard to say if he could have defeated Eldaafer, the Marathon winner.
* * *
Early in the Breeders' Cup Classic, it became clear we were going to get a butcher job of a race call from hired-gun race announcer Trevor Denman of Santa Anita.
In a display of cheap, fabricated drama, Zenman yelled three times "Zenyatta is DEAD LAST!"
Trevor, that's her game, and you didn't need to emphasize the word "dead" so much. A horse had already died earlier in the day. And you totally missed Blame's nifty muscle move to split horses and get the lead in the early stretch.
But Denman doesn't deny it. "It wasn't a day to be impartial. That wasn't in my heart at that moment." So basically he's telling us to stick it.
Denman epitomized the jingoistic fervor that characterized so much of the Zenyatta hoopla and became so unappealing. In the end, he called Zenyatta's race, not the Breeders' Cup Classic. It was a disservice to Blame and all the other horses.
No wonder Claiborne Farm's Seth Hancock, owner of Blame, was so defiant in claiming Horse of the Year status for his Classic winner.
Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes every Friday and welcomes your comments.More from Beachwood Sports »
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